How Are You? When “I’m Okay” Means Not Okay At All

How are you? What do you say when you're not okay at all? I'm okay? I'm fine?

I suspect that many of us living with mental illness, or any other chronic illness, for that matter, have a standard set of responses that we sometimes draw on when answering questions about how we are and what we do. “Not okay” just isn’t something most people want to hear.

For me, these standard responses may come out if there’s an expectation of judgment, but also if I know the person isn’t actually interested in the real answer, if I don’t like the person sufficiently for them to get a genuine answer, or if I just don’t have a short but still accurate answer for how I’m doing.

Here are some examples from my repertoire.

How are you?

  • “Great” = anywhere from good to great
  • “Good” = okay
  • “Okay” = not okay
  • “Alright” = not very good, but there’s no point getting into it now
  • “Um… ok, I guess” = really not okay, but I don’t have the words/energy to describe it

It’s been a long time since I’ve come out with the first two responses, but they were standard practice when I was well.

What have you been up to lately?

  • “not much” = I’m doing my usual thing, but I have no interest in telling you what that is
  • “Um……. not much” = a) I’ve literally done nothing, or b) I don’t remember

Work-related questions

I don’t have enough contact with people to run into this situation anymore, but this is something I’ve struggled with in the past. Mostly, I tried to keep the word count below five. “Where are you working right now?” “I’m not.” End of story. People seem to feel very entitled to ask about work. But, as I said, I don’t deal with that much now because I’m not around annoying people enough to have to put up with it. Plus now it takes me an extended period of time to even get five words out of my mouth, so that shuts things down rather well.

Smiling versus not-smiling

I sometimes try to smile to be polite. Psychomotor retardation doesn’t always leave that as an option, though. The slower I get, the less I’m physically able to move my face into expressions. Even if I wanted to smile, I couldn’t; it’s like my face just doesn’t move that way. And really, forced politeness is pretty low on the list of things that matter to me, so I can’t be bothered wasting energy on people I don’t care about.

It should be okay to not be okay

One in four people will deal with mental illness at some point. That’s a lot of not okay people, and it really should be okay to talk about it. Maybe to create change we should consider answering honestly rather than turning to our stock phrases. That’s definitely easier said than done, but maybe

Do you have any preferred go-to responses to “how are you?” when you’re not okay?

Mental health coping toolkit

The Coping Toolkit page has a broad collection of resources to support mental health and well-being.

52 thoughts on “How Are You? When “I’m Okay” Means Not Okay At All”

  1. After experiencing work-place bullying, I’m not surprised you’d struggle with honest answers to the ‘how are you’ question or really about opening up and sharing anything not work-related.

    My repertoire is typically just ‘fine thanks, how’re you?’ I’ve found that 99% of people I’ve known offline have never really cared about the answer. Some online don’t. The times I’ve dared to share, when I’ve been really struggling, I’ve had some pretty shitty responses that have made me prefer to suffer in silence and keep my mouth shut (or my fingers off the keyboard!) What I think I find difficult is that I tend to think from my perspective, and maybe I do expect too much from others. If I ask how someone is, I care and want to listen if they wish to talk to me, without judgement or pushiness. Thankfully my own experiences of ever saying I’m not okay haven’t turned me into a total asshole. I’d just rather be there for others than risk the let down, judgement or non-response when sharing my own feelings. That didn’t mean to sound as ‘woe-is-me’ as it came out. It’s just an honest account of what I’ve experienced.

    The online realm, for the most part, has been rather different, but of course you’ll still get those that judge or don’t really care for you telling them that things are anything but gloriously rosy. I actually had one blogger who told me off for never opening up or telling her how I was when she asked me, and she felt bad that she always talked about herself. I told her things weren’t great, thank you for caring, and told her a few of the negative things I was going through? She replied a few sentences along the lines of : “I can’t hear this, I just can’t deal with it. I need positivity, you know? There’s so much to be grateful for, and at least you don’t have cancer”. I shit you not.

    As for smiling, I’m guilty of false politeness a lot. I feel sometimes that makes me a bad person or not genuine. It’s more like a natural thing though because I don’t attempt to do it, it just happens and I hate thinking I’d ever offend someone willingly (not too bothered if they’re an asshole and I offend them intentionally 😉). You make a good point with your inability to physically always smile, because so much in our communications comes from non-verbal cues. Do you ever find that people ask you more how you are when you’re not smiling, or that they’re more disinterested?

    Sorry for the huge ramble. Might be useful if you need something to send you off to sleep! xx

    1. That whole “at least you don’t have cancer”, there are starving children in Africa, etc., etc. nonsense drives me bonkers. And sure, being a starving child with cancer in Africa with a warthog eating your butt wouldn’t be pleasant, but that shouldn’t mean other people can’t have a slice of the shitty life pie.

  2. Great entry. When I was in rehab, there was a woman and I who were always the first up in the morning and after a few days we agreed to stop saying “How are you?” as our first greeting. Instead we would say “I see you” because we agreed that’s all people meant when they asked it. Nobody really cares about the answer, they just have to acknowledge you to be polite.

  3. Also, any time anyone asks me what’s wrong, my answer is always, “I’m tired”. It always works. No more questions asked. It’s always accepted because we’re all tired, aren’t we? And it’s not even really a lie. I’m tired of dealing with everything. I’m emotionally tired. And, sometimes, I’m actually physically tired on top of it!

  4. When people ask me questions, I always resort to telling what I’m doing now without going into details about the challenges I am facing. I sometimes actually feels mentally weak though doing what I am doing but I just keep the conversation short by talking about happenings instead of how I feel and think. People thought they are showing me concerns and supporting me. In fact, I don’t feel anything about their questions. These questions aren’t helpful in any way. I feel more rested when I am around people who have the similar kind of struggles. Thanks for sharing this openly, Ashleyleia <3

  5. I go… “Ah! Surviving it, just about!” with a laugh.

    Or…more wickedly-mysteriously, “I’ll be alright if I don’t get caught!”

  6. I find the questions about work difficult, particularly from family members as I actually care what they think! I just tell them I’m studying, but I know some of them don’t have a very high opinion of me for not being able to work.

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